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By Amy Wimmer Schwarb
Editor's Note: One in an occasional series of features about Michigan Law Alumni who excel in a variety of fields.
This story originally appeared in the Spring 2012 Law Quadrangle.
In the arena of sports agents, a profession crowded with more lawyers wanting to represent athletes than athletes who need representation, Arn Tellem, '79, always finds room.
Now principal of WMG Management, Tellem has been named the most influential agent in sports by both The Sporting News and the Sports Business Journal. He has represented such NBA superstars as longtime Indiana Pacers guard Reggie Miller and Chicago Bulls standout Derrick Rose, as well as MLB talents such as Chicago White Sox slugger Frank Thomas and MVP second baseman Chase Utley.
Yet when Tellem was embarking on law school, the sports agent industry was so young that even he, a lifelong sports fan with an affinity for his hometown Philadelphia teams, never considered a career as an agent.
"I always had an interest in sports, but the agent business and working as a lawyer in sports was still really in its infancy," Tellem says. "I wasn't really aware of lawyers working for teams as I entered law school. My first interest was politics, and my goal was to run a presidential campaign."
In the brief history of sports agents, Michigan has produced some heavy hitters. Tellem's first job out of law school was with an L.A. firm that included Alan Rothenberg, '63, who represented the owner of the Los Angeles Lakers. Tim Hoy, '82, knew Tellem from Manatt, Phelps, Rothenberg & Tunney and has worked with him for 12 years, now as vice president of WMG Management. Rob Pelinka, '96, who as an undergrad was a basketball teammate of Michigan's famed Fab Five, was a summer clerk for Tellem and Hoy when
he was in law school and later followed his mentors into the business.
Even today, the sports agent industry is enduring growing pains. The glamour
of working alongside professional athletes lures many to the profession—and success depends more on hustle than credentials, says Sherman Clark, the Kirkland & Ellis Professor of Law, who has taught sports law at Michigan for more than 10 years.
"I don't know how complete the professionalization of the field is," Clark says. "In all major sports, an agent has to be approved by the union, and the NFL requires you to have some advanced degree beyond undergrad. Many prominent agents are lawyers, but you don't have to be."
Sports agents didn't emerge until the 20th century, becoming necessary as reverence for professional athletes skyrocketed, along with their salaries.
The first athlete known to use an agent was Harold "Red" Grange, the Galloping Ghost from the University of Illinois. In an era when most professional football players received $25 to $100 a game, Grange reached
a deal in 1925 with the Chicago Bears that gave him an annual salary of $125,000, plus a share of the gate proceeds. Grange negotiated with a personal representative—C.C. "Cash and Carry" Pyle, a theater owner and all-around professional promoter, at his side decades before the term "sports agent"
was even coined.
As a profession, the business of sports agents took a major leap forward
in 1960, when lawyer Mark McCormack told a young Arnold Palmer that he was thinking about starting a company of business managers to represent professional golfers. With a handshake, the two men essentially started International Management Group and cemented a partnership that
would usher in an era of corporate sponsorships, merchandise
licensing, and made-for-TV sports.
In 1964, when Earl Wilson was negotiating his contract with the Boston Red Sox, he turned for help to attorney Bob Woolf, who previously had represented him following a car accident. But Wilson wasn't permitted to have his agent with him at the negotiating table; he would call Woolf from a nearby pay phone when he needed advice.
"It was not until the late '60s that the profession of sports agent became something people could do," Clark says. "That doesn't mean athletes didn't have sports agents; there just wasn't an established field. People might have their dad or a lawyer friend help them with the contract—as in, 'Hey, could you look at this for me?' But before the late '60s and union collective bargaining, there wasn't much negotiating. A team offered you a contract, and you just took it—or not."
A former Detroit Tigers player later played a role in determining Tellem's first career steps. As he was researching firms in his 2L year, he discovered that Los Angeles–based Manatt, Phelps, Rothenberg & Tunney had a strong presence in Democratic Party politics, ties to Michigan through then-partner Rothenberg, and, most important, a connection to his childhood hero, Tigers first baseman Hank Greenberg, whose son Steve practiced sports law at the Manatt firm.
"To my grandparents, Hank Greenberg was a very important figure in the
'30s and '40s," Tellem says. "He was a source of Jewish pride for me, and
so, naturally, Steve's involvement in the firm piqued my interest. During my [internship] interview, I was offered a job. I was so excited that I accepted on the spot. When I told my parents in Philly that I was moving to L.A., they were in shock. To allay their fears, I said, 'The firm represents Barbra Streisand, and Hank Greenberg's son works there.' Then, suddenly, everything was okay."
After that summer, Tellem was back at Michigan for his final year of law school, in 1979, when he got his first chance to recruit an athlete: Rick Leach, the Michigan All-American in football and baseball. "I met with him, met with his family, and tried to convince them to go with our firm," Tellem recalls. "They didn't, but I got a taste of what it was like to recruit an athlete."
Out of college, he took a job at Manatt, a decision helped along by its location in L.A. His future wife, Nancy—who years later would become president of CBS Entertainment—was a California native. After a few years of tax and litigation work, he helped the firm pick up its first athlete-clients, baseball players met at spring training camps. In the late '80s, Tellem branched into
the NBA when he signed a gangly UCLA grad named Reggie Miller.
In 1989, Tellem struck out on his own, taking Miller and his handful of other sports clients with him. In 2000, SFX Entertainment bought Tellem's firm, and soon, Tellem convinced his protégé Pelinka to join him at SFX.
At Michigan, sports law was not offered as a course through much of the 1990s, since the previous instructor, Beverley Pooley, had retired. In the
late '90s, a group of interested students lobbied to bring back the class.
"I realized," Clark says, "that sports law is an excellent pedagogical tool and excellent course to teach to think about law generally, even if you have no interest in working in the field. Sports puts unique pressure on the law and makes you think more deeply about the law."
Chitta Mallik, '00, was in the first sports law class Clark taught. Mallik was interested in pursuing a facet of sports law, possibly as an agent. Then,
Tellem came to speak to Clark's class.
"His speech and my individual conversation with him, even though it lasted only a few minutes, were really inspiring," Mallik says of Tellem. "He truly loves his job and had made such an impact on his clients. You meet so many people, especially lawyers, who really dislike their jobs. To be able to finally talk to sports lawyers who enjoyed their trade made me think, 'This is something I must continue to explore further. I need to make this my goal.'"
Mallik reached out to Pelinka, too, and was motivated by his descriptions of watching
clients grow into successful men who positively impacted their communities. Then, Mallik charted his own course: He spent one summer doing legal research and landing marketing deals for a sports and entertainment lawyer in his home state of Maryland; the next summer, he worked at Morgan Lewis in Washington, D.C.— which represented Major League Baseball.
After law school, he took a job at Latham & Watkins, where he worked on mergers and acquisitions and IPOs before moving on to Octagon, a large sports and entertainment agency, where he drafted and negotiated lucrative endorsement deals. In 2009, Mallik
was certified as an NFL agent, and now helps run the Football Division of Washington, D.C.– based Perennial Sports & Entertainment, along with his business partner Tony Paige, a former NFL standout and veteran NFL agent.
Today, Perennial represents more than 30 NFL players, with Paige and Mallik leading the way. Mallik currently serves as one of the NFL agents for Cam Newton, the former Auburn quarterback who was the No. 1 overall pick in the
2011 NFL Draft and went on to win offensive Rookie of the Year.
Mallik's trajectory follows the path that Clark likes to outline for his students.
"I really like to tell someone that to prepare for a career in sports law, you should prepare for a career as a good lawyer," Clark says. "Take Contracts. Take Trusts. Pick a firm where you have athletes and sports teams."
This year, Mallik will return to Clark's class to describe his experiences as a young agent.
"When I talk to people who want to break into the industry, I always say,
'The most important thing is to talk to people who are living your dream,'" Mallik says. "It was tough for me to meet highly successful agents because
of their schedules, but persistence is the key. Being able to talk to the true leaders in my industry gave me the raw inside look into the world that was instrumental in launching my career."
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